The 145-acre Camelback property on Lake Austin, just west of the iconic Pennybacker Bridge, rises straight up a series of limestone cliffs to a densely forested ridge 380 feet above the water. It’s as close to a proper mountain as you can find in Central Texas. And what a mountain. From the top, you can see the sweeping semicircular curve of the Colorado River below, and off to the east, a gap in the hills frames the Oz-like cluster of high-rises in downtown Austin, ten or so miles away.
It’s here that property owner Jonathan Coon has built a four-story metal-frame viewing platform that rises above the treetops and affords lucky visitors one of the most commanding views in the state. The platform won’t be here for long, though: It exists only so that Coon can sell people on his new plan, announced Tuesday, to turn the Camelback into the site of an ultra-luxury condo community with 179 cliffside homes, a private marina, a sprawling athletic center with outdoor and indoor tennis courts—and an air-conditioned, glass-box funicular that will whisk residents from hilltop to lakeside in two minutes flat. Four Seasons, the luxury resort company famous for such properties as the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera as well as high-end hotels and residences in Austin, Houston, and Dallas, will manage the property, to be known as the Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin.
Coon, who gave a private tour of the site a day before his big announcement, explained that he has been pursuing the dream of this development for a decade. The 51-year-old Richardson native with a wholesome, boyish smile made a fortune at a young age when he founded 1-800 Contacts from his dorm room at Brigham Young University in 1995. He built the Utah-based company into a publicly traded corrective eyewear Goliath that he eventually sold, in 2012, for $900 million. That was shortly after he and his wife, who’d also grown up in Texas, decided their next chapter would be based in Austin.
Standing atop the viewing platform on a clear fall day, pointing out various landmarks (there’s Michael Dell’s hilltop manse, video-game maker Richard Garriott’s lakefront ranch, National Instruments cofounder Jeff Kodosky’s medieval Tuscan village), Coon gestured toward a cluster of mirrored office buildings just north of the bridge: he’d been visiting a friend who worked in the top floor of one of them back in 2011 when the subject of Camelback’s status came up for the first time. “Most people assumed the land was part of a nature preserve,” Coon remembered, “but he had figured out it was privately owned”—by whom, though, was a mystery.
That was the beginning of Coon’s obsession with Camelback (so named for the shape of the hill). He envisioned building his dream home there, but he knew that wouldn’t make financial sense without developing more of the land. He started calling a lawyer who was associated with the property, “and he wouldn’t even give a hint who the owner was,” Coon said. “I would call him and send him a letter every year—all cash, no contingency—no response.” The owner turned out to be Exxon, which had bought the land in 1992 as a potential headquarters site but through various twists of fate had never acted on the idea. The company finally relented in 2017 and sold to Coon—and developing the land has been his full-time job ever since, his first, and likely his last, project in the field of real estate development.
The toughest part of the job? Selling folks on his vision. Coon is far from the first person to reimagine a swath of the rugged west Austin hills as a playground for the rich—that would be practically every landowner in the area. But this particular piece of property is a special case.
For one thing, some 4,000 people per week—more than 200,000 per year—park at the edge of the bridge and hike to the top of the bluffs to take in the view. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Austin, the kind of place where families bring the in-laws, couples get engaged, and stoned teens go to stare at the horizon. Never mind that it’s not technically a park; the Pennybacker Bridge Overlook is an Austin institution, and the long waterfront stretch of Coon’s triangular property runs right up to the edge of it. Second, millions of motorists cross the bridge each year (about 50,000 cars per day) and marvel at the dramatic cliffs.
Coon’s biggest complication has revolved around sight lines. When your neighbors, who paid many millions of dollars for spectacular views, know how to pull the levers of power, being the guy who plops a big building in front of them does not make you popular. It would be like erecting a twenty-foot-high tent at the fifty-yard line and blocking the fanciest season-ticket holders from seeing their football team. The solution, years in the making, required countless meetings with neighbors and officials to address concerns and get permissions.
The result could easily qualify as a Bond villain’s lair, somehow both discreet and opulent. A broad, four-story building will hug the contours of the ridge, with glass walls offering unobstructed views from the floor-through condominiums within. A dozen detached “villas” will cascade down the hillside, set apart just so for optimal privacy and sight lines. And the funicular—which will cost $15 million to build—will unite the property, all the way down to the marina, which will have private lounges above the boat slips. In all, there will be 179 homes, ranging from 1,900 to 7,000 square feet, with prices starting at around $4 million for the smallest, which is being billed as a pied-à-terre.
The neighbors’ views? Preserved by a maximum building height of 45 feet from the top of the hill. And the public access, Coon is quick to argue, will be enhanced, not obstructed. Illegal parking will be replaced with 25 city-approved spots, and the first 1,400-plus-foot stretch of the cliff from the highway will become a city park, with an official trail enhancing accessibility. Overall, 90 of the 145 acres will be protected as green space. As for the motoring public’s view: “The goal is when you drive across the bridge, this just looks like an extension of the hillside,” Coon said. “Imagine if we just built a thirty-story tower. It actually would have meant more green space. Environmental staff would have approved it in five minutes—144 acres of green space with a one-acre footprint—but everyone else would have hated it.”
With “everyone” Coon includes himself; he, of course, still plans to one day make this place home. Construction won’t finish for at least another four years (“if everything goes amazing,” he said), so move-in day will occur a good fourteen or fifteen years from the day he spotted the land.
Will it have been worth it? “I tend to make long-term commitments,” he said before pointing out that he was at 1-800 Contacts for more than twenty years. He talked about having learned that “the process of creating delightful customer experiences isn’t always delightful,” and about how his goal here is to be the ultimate customer. He brought up the fact that 62 buyers have already reserved homes on the site and discussed the value of having a great neighborhood. Finally he turned back to the question. “Ask me when it’s finished,” he said. There’s no telling what else will be on the Austin horizon by then.